For a brief period last Saturday, it appeared as if the stakes of the impending Arkansas State-Appalachian State showdown would lessen. Both schools entered the final Saturday of October unbeaten in Sun Belt Conference play, setting the stage for a conference-defining game in Boone, N.C., if the two could just survive Halloween weekend.
It was close, but both teams escaped.
Arkansas State (5-3, 4-0 Sun Belt), fueled by a 21-point fourth quarter, outlasted Georgia State 48-34 to keep its conference record unblemished at 4-0. The late surge was business as usual for the Red Wolves, as the team scored 145 points in the fourth quarter in 2014. Arkansas State’s offense racked up 520 yards of total offense against the Panthers, but its defense allowed 491.
Unlike Arkansas State, Appalachian State (7-1, 4-0) needed three overtime periods to get past Troy. The second-year Sun Belt member used a 24-yard field goal from senior Zach Matics to propel it to a 44-41 victory, its sixth consecutive.
Thursday marks just the second meeting between the two schools. Appalachian State defeated Arkansas State 37-32 last year in the Mountaineers’ inaugural season in the Sun Belt Conference.
Arkansas State at Appalachian State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Spread: Arkansas State +10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Arkansas State Quarterback Fredi Knighten
Knighten landed on numerous watch lists to begin his senior campaign and his name is prominent throughout the Arkansas State record book.
Knighten quarterbacked the Red Wolves to a near upset of two-time defending SEC East champion Missouri in week two when he threw for 97 yards and two touchdowns, but Arkansas State fell short, falling 27-20 to the Tigers. The Little Rock, Ark., native injured his groin late in the game and missed the following three weeks with injury. Last week, against Georgia State, Knighten passed for three touchdowns and 224 yards and rushed for 54 yards and a score.
Knighten has thrown for 4,167 yards since 2012 and has connected for 364 completions, which ranks fifth all-time in school history.
2. Appalachian State's Defense
With the exception of Appalachian State’s 41-10 early-season loss to Clemson, the current No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Mountaineers' defense, which is ranked 12th in FBS at 298.6 yards per game allowed, has been virtually impossible to score on. Prior to last week’s three-overtime home win over Troy in which the unit surrendered 41 points, the Appalachian State defense in its last five contests held opposing offenses to just 43 points, a paltry 8.6 per game.
Perhaps no example better illustrates the ferocity of the unit than its Oct. 22 domination of Georgia Southern and its nation's-best running attack.
The Mountaineers’ Ronald Blair, a senior, anchored a defensive line that contained Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida, who leads the Sun Belt with 1,158 rushing yards, to 78 yards and no touchdowns as Appalachian State would go on to win 31-13. Blair’s eight tackles that day matched a season high. For the game, the Eagles rushed for 188 yards, which is less than half of the 385.6 they are averaging on the season, tops in the nation.
Arkansas State running back Warren Wand and his offensive line will match up against the country’s 26th-ranked run defense. Wand enters Thursday with 512 rushing yards and three ground touchdowns on the season. The freshman eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time last week against Georgia State when he went for 119 and a touchdown on 11 carries.
3. Home-Field Advantage
Appalachian State currently boasts a 10-game conference winning streak and has been victorious in 13 of its last 14 games. The Mountaineers have rattled off seven consecutive home wins and are 75-14 at Kidd Brewer Stadium over the past 12 seasons.
The Mountaineers' home, affectionately dubbed “The Rock” by the Appalachian State faithful, will brim with electricity as it’s certain to be a sellout. A win by Arkansas State would make the Red Wolves bowl eligible for the fifth straight year, but snagging one Thursday night won’t be an easy task.
Both teams enter Thursday’s pivotal matchup with great resumes. Appalachian State’s lone loss came against Clemson, while Arkansas State’s three losses have come against USC, Missouri and Toledo.
Thursday’s meeting will be just the second time in Sun Belt history that two teams will meet with unblemished records this late in the season. While both teams’ offenses mirror one another – Arkansas State averages 35.8 points per game, Appalachian State averages 38.8 – defense will be the key to victory. And with a defensive unit that currently holds teams to 298.6 yards and 15.6 points per game, the Mountaineers have one of the nation’s best.
Appalachian State will remain in the pole position in the Sun Belt when this one ends.
Prediction: Appalachian State 31, Arkansas State 17
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.